Louis Magaziner is best known as the architect of North Broad Street’s gloriously Art Deco Uptown Theater, the recently demolished Mt. Sinai Hospital in Pennsport, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Office Building on South Street, and many other terrific buildings across the region. He also happens to be my great-granduncle.
On top of being a prolific local architect with a portfolio stacked with neighborhood theater designs, Magaziner was the longtime secretary of the Pow Wow Club, an exclusive literary society. The group was founded in 1893 by five teenaged members of Philadelphia’s Jewish aristocracy and it endured for roughly 60 years. The Pow Wow Club enabled sophisticated second and third generation Sephardic and German Jews to cultivate their minds and strengthen their connections at a time when nearly all aspects of Philadelphia society were dominated by members of the WASP establishment.
For most of the club’s existence, meetings took place in members’ homes on one Sunday evening a month from late fall until early spring. The host, another member, or occasionally an outside guest would present a paper on a topic of interest. More elaborate anniversary dinners occurred sporadically, often at the leading Jewish club of the era–the Mercantile Club in early years and Philmont Country Club or the Locust Club later on.
A.S.W. Rosenbach, of Rosenbach Museum & Library fame, and four other elite friends created the club. Magaziner would have seemed an unlikely candidate for future membership. He had immigrated to Philadelphia in 1887 at age 9, leaving from the town of Humene in what was then Hungary and now is part of Slovakia. According to family lore, when Magaziner’s older sisters arrived at the port in Philadelphia a few years ahead of the rest of the family, they were assisted by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. These HIAS representatives were the wives of Philadelphia’s Jewish department store magnates and industrialists. Referring to themselves as “Hebrews,” HIAS volunteers sought to help the “Jews” pouring in from Eastern Europe out of a sense of noblesse oblige rather than a sense of shared background or destiny.
The Magaziner family prospered in Philadelphia and young Louis graduated from Central High School in 1894. He became the first Jewish student at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture from which he graduated in 1900. Magaziner succeeded in large part by getting work from his co-religionists. By 1907 he had started his own firm. He was invited to join the Pow Wow Club in 1920, much to the chagrin of his frequent competitor, Frank E. Hahn, another Jewish architect, but one with a fancier lineage and a long-time Pow Wow membership.
Soon after joining the group, Magaziner assumed the dubious honor of serving as club secretary. Given that his tenure occurred during the era in which letters were the primary form of communication, he seems to have dedicated a great deal of time and energy into coordinating meeting times and performing other tedious tasks essential to maintaining the club. Fortunately for historians, Magaziner was fastidious in keeping copies of correspondence that he both sent and received. The materials in the Jewish Archives Collection at Temple University are nearly all written by or to Magaziner. Examined in combination with the mementos of some early club gatherings held by the Rosenbach Museum and Library, the records of the Pow Wow Club provide insight into the interests, biases, habits, preoccupations, and amusements of Philadelphia’s prominent Jewish men during the first half of the 20th century.
Although the founders and members of the Pow Wow Club were all Jewish, the religious bond among the men was rarely mentioned, particularly during the years before Magaziner came on board. In a letter to the group from January 1931 Magaziner refers to a prospective member as being of “our persuasion.” Later that year he opens a letter with the phrase “Shalom Aleichem” and uses the term “tribe.” Given that there are over 100 letters in the Jewish Archives Pow Wow collection, these rare references to Judaism can be viewed as the exceptions that prove the rule.
The most striking avoidance of claiming Jewish affiliation is in the 1927 correspondence Magaziner engages in with H.S. Linfield, a special agent of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Linfield’s initial letter explained that he had been “appointed the Government’s agent for the gathering of the statistics of the Jewish bodies.” Magaziner responded that “…this is not a religious organization. It is simply a group composed of 25 men who joined as young fellows to form a literary society.” Apparently Agent Linfield did not accept Magaziner’s initial demurral, for another letter, more terse in tone, is sent by Magaziner several weeks later restating the same message.
As an organization created by a group of teenage boys, it is not surprising that bawdy, silly humor was an essential part of the Pow Wow’s DNA. Even when the original members were well into middle age, they referred to each other as “boys.” Whether it came to him naturally, or if he was merely fulfilling the expectations of the group, Magaziner seemed to easily adopt the ribald and witty tone of the club in his correspondence.
In 1931 Magaziner sent a letter to the members describing the topic for the presentation at the next club meeting: “‘Drunks and Dopes’ is to be done into a discourse by Dr. Doane at Leon’s diet. He will delve deeply into the doings of these devotees of depravity, derelicts of society, debauched denizens of the demi-monde. He will descant on this despised group, drugging their senses, drinking devilish draughts, in these dry days, dragging them daily nearer the dreaded delirium, with destitution, despondency, despair, and destruction their only destiny–Facilis descensus aver no [translation: the descent to Hell is easy] —So datts, datt.”
Two months later he sent another letter in which he facetiously described a member’s poetry presentation and then introduced the speaker for the April gathering: “If the discussion of modern poetry excites such orgasms, what cerebral explosions will be brought when Charlie talks on musical appreciation?”
Oblique references indicate that Prohibition did not prevent imbibing during club gatherings. In a letter reminding members of an anniversary gathering to be held in January of 1921, Magaziner wrote, “Lest you forget—You are to bring with you your own good spirits, both liquid, in moderation and in bottles, and the other kind; both may be effervescent and to be uncorked at the proper time.” From a letter dated December 31, 1927, he described a recent Pow Wow gathering by writing, “The smuggled food was as wet as wet could be, and had the authorized labels.”
The Great Depression, however, surely must have sapped the spirits of many club members. Magaziner’s own finances were severely impacted. During the summer of 1929, Magaziner, his wife, and their three children were comfortably ensconced in the Hotel George V in Paris where the architect had been commissioned to double the size of the landmark building. The market crashed soon after the family returned to Philadelphia in late August. The hotel’s owners went bankrupt and Magaziner was never paid for his months of work.
Magaziner also suffered substantial losses in both his stock and real estate investments. Architectural commissions were few and far between. Louis’s son, Henry, who also became an architect and prominent architectural historian, had to take a temporary leave of absence from his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The aspiring architect took a job selling Fels Naptha Soap for $15 a week. Louis Magaziner had a heart attack, likely due to the stress of his dire economic straits. But his chipper, boyish tone never belies his difficulties when writing to fellow Pow Wow members. A brief mention of hard times appeared in a letter from April 1934: “Dear Pow Wower: They all say ‘It was a bad depression while it lasted’. Now, spring is here. New sap is flowing into the old saps, new hopes springing from shattered dreams.” Spending time with friends and listening to fellow members expound on topics of interest may well have been a bright light during a dark time for Magaziner and the others.
Although the group continued to meet during the early years of the Great Depression, by the late 1930s and into the years of World War II, meetings and correspondence declined precipitously. Magaziner received and sent sporadic letters alluding to the possibility of organizing a Pow Wow reunion, however, it seems that these initiatives were not seen through to fruition.
An invitation to a 60th anniversary gathering in March 1953 is the final document penned by the architect for the Pow Wow Club. The event was to be held at Magaziner’s long-time home at 3504 Hamilton Street in West Philadelphia. The nostalgic tone of the invitation is not surprising. As a man in his early 70s, Magaziner had spent three decades of his life as club secretary. He wrote, “Without clamor there has crept up on us the perception that we have now reached our 60th anniversary. It is at such periods that our minds reach back and take inventory of things done and those left undone, of our victories and our failures, and it is with no sense of filling you with the self-glorification that I turn the indicator to the time when a group of boys, full of importance, banded together to gather what knowledge could be acquired in the fields of science, art, government, and the many intangibles, and to mould history to their sense of proper values. Thus the members of this group, the founders and those later joining the happy group, had dreams—Dreams they had like Leonardo’s—they peered into the misty future to wrest from it its mystifying secrets.”
Three years after writing these wistful words Louis Magaziner died at the age of 78.
In a 1948 letter, prominent attorney Leon Obermayer wrote to Magaziner suggesting that members invite their sons to attend a Pow Wow Club gathering in the interest of “maintaining ‘Pow Wow’ tradition.” However, the Pow Wow Club did not survive beyond its 60th year. There are many probable reasons. American lifestyles changed in innumerable ways from the days of the club’s heyday to its demise. American attitudes changed as well. While wealthy, educated, and sophisticated men like A.S.W. Rosenbach would have been prevented from joining non-Jewish clubs when the Pow Wow originated, by the end of World War II anti-Semitism had significantly declined in the U.S. The sons and grandsons of the Pow Wow members could join any number of organizations of interest without fear of religious discrimination. Indeed, by the end of the war Louis Magaziner joined an organization he had feared would have rejected him earlier: the American Institute of Architects.